Montreal·Opinion

Common concerns about back to school, and how to calm them

With so much uncertainty around what this year will look like, families across Montreal are experiencing heightened levels of both stress and anxiety. And although the risk of COVID-19 infection may be the general concern, there is a lot more to consider.

These are some of the things students, parents and teachers are thinking about as school approaches

A student is greeted at the Philippe-Labarre elementary school in Montreal on Thursday. School will be much different in Quebec due to the pandemic. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

As we approach the end of August, so too, do we approach the return to school for most students. Usually parents and their children use this time to prepare for the school year, but this year is different.

With so much uncertainty around what this year will look like, families across Montreal are experiencing heightened levels of both stress and anxiety. And although the risk of COVID-19 infection may be the general concern, there is a lot more to consider.

As a high school guidance counsellor, I support parents, students, and often staff, throughout the school year. In my nearly 10 years of experience, I have never entered a school year with so many questions and concerns, from both myself and the families that make up my school's community.

These are some things that I've been hearing and thinking about.

Many students are worried about the availability of courses they may need to graduate or be accepted into a program of choice beyond high school, as courses are being limited in order to follow the protocols sent by the government.

This can lead to students having to take additional steps, time and money to make up for what they were unable to receive, academically, this year.

Other students are worried about the availability of extracurricular activities. Many of these activities serve as a necessary outlet or source of confidence, and help make their school experience a positive one. With the possibility of sports being limited, some students may feel that their goal of getting a scholarship and pursuing an athletic career may be dashed.

Then there are those who are worried about being isolated from friends or partners, and how that loneliness may impact their well-being and academic success. Individuals who have already felt excluded or alone at school may experience these feelings in a more amplified way. This can affect their self-esteem and self-worth, and diminish their sense of belonging within their school community.

Many students see their time at school as a refuge from a number of issues they face in their personal lives. The idea that their safe haven may be altered or removed can leave students feeling lost, distressed, and anxious.

Furthermore, those who already struggle with physical and/or mental health issues may have their struggles exacerbated by this year's return to school.

Another area of consideration is the impact or cost this year's return to school may have on families. Many students are in situations where they live with their grandparents or work to support their families.

For them, the risk of infection goes beyond concern for themselves. There is also the cost of masks to consider, as some families already struggle to pay for school fees or provide their children with lunch.

Along with the students, teachers and school staff are also facing their own unique challenges.

Khan Bouba-Dalambaye, a guidance counsellor and clinical counsellor, offers advice on how to identify and manage anxieties around school. 3:30

For many teachers, the goal to teach effectively and have a good year is largely based on their ability to prepare.

However, as directives and protocols from the government continue to change and evolve, being prepared seems almost impossible. School staff as a whole, especially teachers, are required to adapt and adjust their roles or curriculum with limited time, information and resources.

These dedicated professionals are responsible for their own health and success as well as that of hundreds of students who will look to them for guidance and strength for the next nine months.

Each group will need to rely on both themselves and each other for support, guidance and a sense of normalcy in the months ahead. Regularly engaging in physical activity, hobbies and passions is an excellent way to manage stress, anxiety and tension.

Making time to have fun and enjoy yourself can allow people to establish an emotional equilibrium, and not feel like you're drowning in your worry.

Also, it's important that people, of all ages, identify a person or group where they feel comfortable sharing their feelings and concerns during this pandemic. The availability of regular support will allow people to avoid feeling isolated or alone in their difficulty, and for them to externalize negative feelings so that it doesn't accumulate and spill over to other areas of their life

Now, perhaps more than ever, self-care, coping and resilience must be prioritized at school and at home.

About the Author

Khan Bouba-Dalambaye was born and raised in Côte des Neiges, and is of Trinidadian and Central African descent. He is a graduate of McGill University, and holds a master’s degree in counselling psychology. He has nearly 10 years of experience working as a high school guidance counsellor and clinical counsellor, has taught at the CEGEP level and is a leading diversity, equity, and inclusion expert.

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